Lancashire Wrestling

Lancashire wrestling is an historic wrestling style from Lancashire in England. Many consider it the foundation of catch wrestling, professional and amateur wrestling. The style included groundwork and had the reputation of being an extremely fierce and violent sport.

Lancashire Wrestling is an extremely violent form of wrestling in which only the deliberate breaking of bones is prohibited, Lancashire wrestling is considered to be the founding art of catch wrestling and both professional and amateur wrestling. The style probably evolved out of matches that took place during the 350-year Roman occupation of Britain; the Romans felt the men of Albion (the Roman name for Britain) were rough and did not respect the rules. One of the style’s features was that pins (whereby a wrestler holds his opponent to the ground for a prescribed period of time) were not deemed effective finishing techniques-because they relied on the discretion of the referee-so forcing an opponent to submit became the norm.

Sources show that there were some rules trying to safeguard the wrestlers from serious injury. For instance, there was a ban on breaking an opponent’s bones. In the counties to the north, Cumberland and Westmorland wrestling developed with rules designed to minimise injury to the participants.

Lancashire style wrestling is a form of Catch as Catch Can, which allows considerable freedom of movement and is similar to the free style seen at the modern Olympics. It has a reputation of being particularly barbarous, although the rules specifically bar throttling or the breaking of limbs. There are few restrictions and wrestling continues when the contestants hit the ground.

The Badminton Library has a quote on the Lancashire style of wrestling which states: A Lancashire wrestling match is an ugly sight: the fierce animal passions of the men which mark the struggles of maddened bulls, or wild beasts, the savage yelling of their partisans, the wrangling, and finally the clog business which settles all disputes and knotty points, are simply appalling.

It is not in dispute that wrestling was not only a sport in England it was also a very good form of unarmed combat. If you had lost your sword or singlestick you needed to defend yourself – wrestling was the answer.

A short Introduction : Any wrestling system that contains the word “Catch”, is invariably linked with others of similar names, so a short explanation of this unique style of grappling is in order.

Wrestling in Lancashire has a very long history, as indeed have most of the many and varied regional styles in this country. It is well known that the Romans, during their 300 plus years in this country, had many wrestling matches with the indigenous population. However, the Romans recorded on many occasions, that the “Men of Albion” (Lancashire) were too rough, with little respect for the rules. On the other side of the coin, it is also recorded that the Lancashire men, thought the Romans “Graeco-Roman” style as too tame !

Anyway, Lancashire in the Middle Ages, was the main producers of WOOL for the Country.And just as Nottingham became known for it’s “Goose Fairs”, so Lancashire held many “Wool Fairs”

It was at these many Fairs, that part of the entertainment would be “Wrestling Bouts”. Now these bouts often had some form of prize for the Champion, be it money or goods, as well as the Kudos that went with it. In fact champions were often offered positions as a Middle Ages form of “Body Guard”, and were known by such names as “Gaunt the Wrestler” etc.

As the years passed, these prizes got better, and as such attracted wrestlers from all over the area. not just Lancashire, but it’s neighbouring Counties.. “Yorkshire”, “Westmoreland”, “Cumberland”

“Derbyshire”, “Cheshire” etc. The prizes at some of the larger town’s and cities Fair’s, often reached the level of a year’s wages for a Farm Labourer… Well worth the journey. As the incentives became larger, so a type of “Professional Wrestler” emerged from the more talented grapplers.

This then called for a better organised sytem of matches, often took on by the Lords of the various manors. In fact some “Squires” were known to oonly employ wrestlers as their Grooms, Footmen and other employees.

Organisation produced a more recognised standard way of wrestling in Lancashire, and let’s face it, it does help when you know in advance the manner in which the bout will be fought.

This type of challenge match, going from Fair to Fair, and more or less wrestling in the same manner, continued through the Middle Ages, and well into the late Tudor Period.

Here the supremacy of the Cornish Wrestlers became more well spread, especially as the KIng, Henry 8th, was a great supporter of the Cornish style.

Naturally matches were organised between exponents of all style, and the Lancashire Men often had a raw deal, and there is much mention of arguing of the ‘Rules’ or ‘methods of wrestling’ (not much has changed really as it?) .. The main problem being the fact that most Regional Styles, and especially the West County ones, were the most ‘rigid’.

Lancashire men it seems were nearly always the winners, when the rules were the most lax, and the losers when fighting under other style’s rules.

A lot of old ‘Experts’ and manuscripts refer to the Lancashire Wrestlers as being too rough. So eventually the Lancashire Men gave up competing against other styles, and isolated themselves for a couple of hundred years or so.

The pre-Victorian and Victorian periods saw COAL taking over from wool, as the main industry in Lancashire (later on it was cotton). Now, miners aren’t generally ‘softies’, so it goes without saying, that their ‘play’ was rough as well … This allowed a resurgance in Lancashire Catch, in and around the period from 1840 to 1880. This period helped develop the traditional and accepted style into something much more technical.

There was always a rough element to L.C., and for whatever reasons I can’t yet find, striking was almost forbidden..certainly severely frowned upon. (In fact, I believe it was to preserve the hands in days when most men were ‘manual’ workers .. smashed hands from too much hitting would ten dto reduce your ability to work)

Also for centuries, the style had always been a “Fight to the finish, no rounds, no Pins, style.”, A slight tangent here with a comparison to the development of boxing ..Both have undergone 4 distinct developments, roughly at the same periods in history as well.

First, there was the indigenous methods .. The Romans used striking based on “PAG”, which became “PUG” (thus Pug-ilism) … The Catch men started with “CRAYLING”, which was certainly based on Anglo-Saxon methods mixed in with the Celtic ones. These are best seen in the old “Westmoreland & Cumberland” styles (now Cumbria .. quite close to North Lancashire)

So, Pug became Pugilism, which became Prize Ring, which became Queensbury .. All had different training methods and rules (bare fist, gloves, rounds, scratch etc)

Crayling, which is derived from a Celtic word “to struggle”, slowly added more and more SUBMISSION holds.. The period from 1880/1900, still kept the ‘no rounds-no pins’ methods, and it is THIS that is true Lancashire Catch.. Catch-as-Catch-Can was a variant on it, and was not just confined to Lancashire, thus allowing a greater spread of that style. Rules changed to make iit more watchable, as well as better to participate in.

So, in the same way that “Shaolin Chuan Fa”, were the roots of Karate, yet obviously so different, so the relationship between L.C. and Catch-as-Catch-Can widened until they became almost different styles. TRUE Lancashire Catch contained the following aspects…

It was always a ‘rough & tumble’ Lower Class event.. After the Wool Fairs, the Slag Heaps of the Lancashire Coal fields, became the main venues. Money was collected in a hat, and winner took all .. No second prizes.

They didn’t go big on ‘pin-falls’, believing that simply holding a man down, until someone else counted him as finished, didn’t prove you had really beaten him. After all, he could get up fresh, and continue.Make him SUBMIT, and there was no argument as to who had won .. So submissions became the norm, at the expense of pins.

The usual contest was a single round to a finish, the ‘Referee’ was there to make sure no banned moves took place, and to call a re-start if there was a stalemate. The Ref could call for both men to release their holds, stand up and start again.

The development of the many moves obviously came about because if only submissions ended a fight, then you had to know lots of ways of countering your opponent’s moves.

Also because no pins were used, the wrestlers could fight happily with their backs on the floor, as they weren’t going to get counted out….

Making your opponent submit, meant that not only had you to be able to ‘apply’ the holds, you had to be capable of either keeping them on against a stubborn opponent, and be able to change rapidly from one hold to another .. This was always known as ‘Chaining’, The ways in which the Lancashire Catch men trained and fought became legendary ..

George Hackenshmidt mentions on more than one occasion in several of his books, that the Lancashire men were the toughest.

As a slight aside here, when “Tom Cannon” (one of the best old-style Lancashire Catch Champions) went to America, he was admired for his toughness, but many found him a little ‘boring’…So he changed to the slightly faster “Catch-as-Catch-Can”..

Later on “Karl Gotch” travelled from Lancashire to America and Japan, and was rarely beaton by anyone..The late great Lew Thesz had massive respect for him. Gotch became almost a God in Japan, because of his supreme abilities .. Gotch was primarily a Catch Man.

Not withstanding the acceptable critique, of being a litle ‘boring to watch’, Lancashire Catch remained a very tough system, and in some ways similar to Competition style ‘Judo’.. often much better to DO than to WATCH…

Again a slight ‘side’ here, but it Illustrates what I mean…. Many years ago (1969 in fact), I was at a Wrestling Competition (as a spectator), at the ‘Parochial Hall’ in Bolton, Lancashire. One of the bouts was to be in Lancashire Catch Style.. About 10 minutes into it, I saw what I thought was a superb counter move by one of the wrestlers, and I clapped loudly. However, in the audience of about 200. only SIX other people applauded this move …And we all looked at each other and nodded… Speaking to one of those who had clapped, after the evening ended, it turned out the he also had done some Lancashire Catch, and had seen the move.

What this slight aside is meant to illustrate, is like a lot of the older styles, it is NOT a very good spectator sport, and needed someone who had actually done a little to both recognise and appreciate the moves.

It was lack of understanding, and to a lesser degree it’s ‘dullness’ which probably contributed to it’s demise…. However, it was (and is) a great art to actually DO!

Anyway, after that ‘tangent’, back to the style .. Words describing it’s holds etc, also showed it’s roots in the ‘Wool Fair’ world .. Many of the leg positions are called “Hanks”, and wool used to be sold in hanks,, a kind of twisted piece. “Chips” (not the salt’n’vinegar types) was the term for ceratin takedowns ..other terms are ..  “Bars” .. “Mares” .. “Buttocks” .. “Hammerlocks” .. “Nelsons” .. etc

There are literally 100’s of moves and counter-moves, using the legs as well as the arms, which made it much more comprehensive, than say “Graeco-Roman”

A typical ‘old-style’ match would commence with both antagonists about one pace apart from each other, well balanced and body forward.. Hands always straight out but elbows well bent. And it was quite mobile, not much standing about pulling and straining. There would be a short tussle for grips and standing holds. From here attempts at throws or takedowns would see the wrestlers where most grapplers work best .. on the ground, straining for holds and counters. The Lancashire wrestlers weren’t ‘static’ on the floor, there was lots of movements, and sometimes in certain holds, one man would be back kneeling or even standing, after gaining a hold.

A great opener would be deliberate ‘feints’, in order to get your opponent to commit himself to a move, then the art of the ‘attacking counter’ would come in.

For example.. A ‘Waist hold’ would be to get behind the opponent, then use a trip to get him into the floor position, then an attempt at say a ‘Toe-Hold’ to await the counter, then ‘counter the counter’ and so on.

The bout would continue, without a break, no rounds, until someone submitted. Unless a time-limit had been agreed on before the bout, most bouts (in the 19th Century), would just go on and on.

This no doubt was one small contributing factor to it’s demise (another was the advent of the Olympic Games in 1948.. all wrestlers wanted to compete, so ONLY Olympic Freestyle was encouraged)

In the case of ‘stale-mate’, when both wrestlers were in holds, and it became obvious that no advantage existed to each, then a break was called, and the match re-started.

The actual training for this type of wrestling, was also slightly different to most others. There was always a great emphasis on conditioning work .. lots and lots of drilling, then masses of time spent perfecting (hopefully) the many holds and counters.

Most exercises were done to a time rather than a number.. So, say for example, ‘squats’ or deep knee bends (similar but different exercises). These would start and away you’d go until the Instructor called “TIME”.. It’s a lot harder when you don’t actually know how many you are going to do. After all, if you plan, say 50 squats, and you get to 45, you know you only have 5 left (Great maths eh?). But if you just have to carry on going up and down with no pre-knowledge of how long it will last, then you just HAVE to keep going.

Actual wrestling bouts in training weren’t all that common.. the work on the drills, basics and counters took up most of the session. Anyway, that is a little about the early Lancashire Catch style, this is the one from the 18th and 19th Centuries, as opposed to the between wars style that dominated the style in that era.

I last saw some good training in the old style Lancashire Catch back in 1978. I do incorporate some of it’s moves in with my self-defence stuff. But I have to admit it is usually mixed in with the other stuff.. If I simply see the chance to get a move in from LC, I will use it, but I don’t set out to do so.

The style is all but gone, and that is a shame.. It is part of our very rich combat heritage, sadly often overlooked because of the propensity of Orietnatl systems pervading these shores.

Maybe it SHOULD stay with ‘Mail Coaches’, ‘Press Gangs’, Various ‘Kings George’ and ‘Oil lamps’.. Maybe it’s place is no more.. But I would like to think that by at least letting people know about it, it won’t be totally forgotten.

As newer methods. styles and competitions are devised, the old often seems antiquated, that comparisons are often odious. Yet in the days before the advent of ‘Vale Tudo’, Shoot’, ‘Brazilian’ etc etc, this style reigned supreme. It must have had ‘something’ useful to survive, grow and develop for over five centuries.

Historical events and ideals often seem ‘quaint’, but without ANYTHING that goes before, nothing can follow on from it. Muskets gave way to breech loaders, to magazines, to machine guns etc.. They all killed people, and they were all the most modern in their days.

Lancashire Catch (in it’s varied guises), was and still IS a great style of wrestling .. It wasn’t the be-all and end-all of wrestling by a long way. Yet it was hard, furious, with some very technical, yet viscious moves.. It simply needs to be viewed in the right context.

It would be easy to be dismissive of it compared to one or two of the modern styles. Yet in the 19th century, it reigned supreme, as the tops in close quarter combat methods for one man against another. After all, if you accept all challenges from ANYONE, and beat most, then you must be doing SOMETHING right,

So, even if Lancashire Catch, is no more.. Even if you are totally absorbed into modern grappling then at least respect it’s place in the world history of grappling. It is a British style, that travelled well, it produced strong brave champions, who fought well and hard. It was a very complex style with lots of technical moves. It could be used just as easily in self-defence, as it could in a ring. It’s top practitioners were always well respected. It allowed a supreme struggle between skilled an determined opponents. It developed strong, fit bodies, and hard determined minds.. so, in the final analyisis of the style .. WHAT MORE COULD YOU ASK OF IT ? ~ by Dave Turton 7th Dan : Head of the Self-Defence Federation